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Mostly Wrens and Squirrels, 05-16-18

I was up around 6:00 am and took the dog with me over to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. I encountered clouds along the way, but none of them amounted to anything where I was traveling. Back in Sacramento, however, they apparently got really organized and the city had rain, thunder and over 100 lightning strikes in the morning (just after I left). Wow!

At the refuge: because the big pond in the permanent wetland area is drained, there isn’t really a lot of anything to see there right now. Usually, there are frogs and snakes and all manner of birds around the pond, dragonflies and damselflies, a multitude of spiders, otters and muskrats…

Right now, the pond is like a PRAIRIE. Dried up with short vegetation sprouting throughout it and little mud holes here and there. It’s hard to get wetland wildlife photos when there’s no water! The geese were actually GRAZING where the pond should have been. *Sigh*

Still, I managed to get photos of some cottontails and California Ground Squirrels, and Marsh Wrens at their nests. I sat parked along the auto tour at one point for about 30 minutes, just watching a pair of the wrens. The male was out singing away, while the female flew beak-fulls of dried grass to the nest she’d chosen and arranged it inside. Once, while I watched, the male went up to the next and stuck his head, checking out the female’s work. When she came back with a mouth full of twiglets, he flew off singing again. The opening to the nest was turned away from the car, so I couldn’t see in to see what she was doing. Danged smart little birds.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

The California Ground Squirrels seemed to be everywhere. They should have lots of babies to feed this time of year. As an aside, did you know that in 1918 California launched a campaign to eradicate these native squirrels and even had posters and pamphlets printed encouraging children to join the “army against the squirrels”? “Children, we must kill the squirrels to save food,” a woman on the pamphlet says as she’s smiling. “But use poisons carefully.” The pamphlet included a recipe for strychnine-laced grain as well as suggestions for other extermination methods, such as shooting, drowning, and poison gas. Horrifying (and stupid). The campaign, sanctioned by the state government, actually came from the beef industry which claimed the squirrels were eating all of the grain on which the cattle fed.

I also came across a large creche of Canada Geese (parents, fuzzy goslings and fledglings); about 30 babies altogether(!). This is typical for Canada Geese. One set of adults watches over the group while the other parents feed, and the babies are kept in a group with the youngest in the center and the older ones on the outside. The behavior provides safety in numbers, and also teaches the young ones the concepts of following the leaders and working together – which they’ll need during migration.

In different spots along the route, I was able get good photos of a Red-Eared Slider Turtle and a large Pacific Pond Turtle, so that was nice. For all of my “bitching” about the lack of the big ponds, I did manage to see and count about 43 different species (plants and animals), so the trip wasn’t a waste… And it got me outside, into the fresh air, and focused on something other than my grief over the death of my brother Michael and his wife Sharyi…

On my way out of the refuge, I found a pair of Mourning Doves sitting in a tree, a male and female cooing at each other. They immediately brought Mike and Sharyi to mind, and even as lovely as they were, they brought a tear to my eye…

When I got back to the house it was around 2:00 pm. After a late lunch, I walked around the yard with the dogs and took photos of stuff like the Yellow-Billed Magpies in distant trees, a very fat American Robin (it made me chuckle, it was soooo chubby), and the Genista Broom Moth caterpillars that are currently multitudinous on the broom plant in the corner of the yard. They’re generally yellow-orange caterpillars with clusters of black and white spots on them and long sparse white hairs poking out all over. When the light hits them just right, they look like tubes of orange glass…

When mama moth lays her eggs on the plant, she lays them in clusters, one row overlapping the other, like fish scales. The caterpillars only eat broom, so they’re not a danger to the other plants in the yard. They’re also able to “jump” from one branch to another to escape predators.

Saw My First Mink!

I got up around 5:30 am because the dog wanted his breakfast and needed to pee, so I let him do his morning stuff and brewed a pot of coffee… then went back to bed until about 7:30.  I’m still feeling crummy and still have a fever, but the cough has abated for the most part. I was dog-tired but also feeling really stir-crazy after being in bed for so many days, so I went over to the Cosumnes River Preserve and walked for a little bit.  I was hoping that moving around would encourage the fever to break.  I didn’t walk for as long as I usually do, and was headachy and exhausted when I got back home, but I still feel the fresh air and exercise was worth it.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos and video snippets.

I only walked along the boardwalk and the small ponds around it, and didn’t walk the longer trails. A lot of the usual suspects were out there, but I was astonished to come across a MINK (Neovison vison)!  It was the first time I’d ever seen a live mink in the wild, and at first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. The mink was in a pond near the parking area, and I could see its head poking out of the water.  At first I thought maybe it was a baby otter, but the muzzle was the wrong shape. I got some photos of it in the water and then it ducked under the surface and I lost it.  A few second later, I saw it come up the bank to the side of the road right in front of me.  I watched it climb up and go to a tangle of fallen branches… and then realized there was the body of a dead mink there, too.  The live mink sniffed around the dead one for a little while, and then grabbed the carcass in its mouth.  It started pulling the dead mink down into the water, and I walked up a little bit closer to try to get more photos and video. The live mink saw me, dropped the dead one on the bank and swam off…  I considered going after the carcass, but the bank’s incline was too steep and I didn’t want to end up in the water.

I don’t know if the live mink wanted the dead mink’s body to mourn it or to eat it (or both). Mink DO eat just about anything including fish, frogs, rabbits, muskrats, insects, birds and snakes. They build burrows adjacent to water with at least one water entrance and up to 8 exit tunnels on land.  There are supposedly a lot of them in the area, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually seen one (or two as the case may be).

While I was walking along the side of the pond, an elderly gentleman, who said his name was Larry, drove up in his truck and asked if I’d seen anything interesting. When I told him I saw the mink, he quickly pulled into the nearby parking lot and joined me on the bank.  I commented on his super-fancy camera rig (with a lens as long as his arm) and he said he used to be a sports photographer for the Lodi Sentinel newspaper. Now that he’s retired, he was able to use the tools from his former job to augment his play.  He showed me some photos of Sandhill Cranes that he took, and they were awesome.  He’s kind of new at this nature-photography thing, though, so he doesn’t really know what he’s photographing.  (He thought Northern Shoveler ducks were Mallards, and didn’t know what the Black-Necked Stilts were.  But he’s anxious to learn.)  I think he’s probably in his 70’s; he had to quit working for the newspaper because he has recurring problems with sciatic pain and can’t be on his feet for any length of time.  We walked and talked for a little while, but the mink never resurfaced, so Larry and I went our separate ways…

Two misses today: I saw a Belted Kingfisher perched on a telephone line, watching for fish in one of the adjacent sloughs, but when I turned the car around to get a photo of him, he flew off.  Same thing with a gorgeous Black-Shouldered Kite sitting in a tree by the road. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, but when I got to a place where I could turn the car around, the bird was gone.  Dang.

Oh, and an odd thing: on my way back home, I saw an odd-looking bird standing along the edge of a rice field. I couldn’t tell what it was, so I pulled the car off to the side of the road to take a better look at the thing. It looked like a cross between a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron… and it took me several minutes to realize I was looking at a fake bird. It was mounted on a pole that mimicked the long legs of the egrets and herons, and what finally made it obvious to me that it was a decoy and not a live bird was when the wind blew; the whole bird spun slowly in a circle on the pole. Hahahaha!

I went right home after that and crashed in bed with the dog for the rest of the day.

Vacation Day #10: Birds, Bucks and a Bambi

DAY TEN OF MY FALL VACATION… I slept in until about 6:00 am and immediately headed out to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve again.  It was 43º at the river when I got there; there was also low fog on the ground for a while. By the time I left it was in the low 60’s…

At the refuge, I was surprised to see two pairs of Red Shouldered Hawks building up their nests; it seemed like kind of a weird part of the year for them to be doing that.  One was the pair that regularly keeps a nest right beside the nature center; and the other nest was located along the Pond Trail at the #48 water spigot, right across from where the bee hive was. (The queen and her troop have moved on and are no longer nesting in the tree.) I got to see both pairs of birds going back and forth, collecting grass and twigs for the nests and building them up. Red-Shouldered Hawks usually start breeding when they’re 2 years old, and pairs stay together for life.  Both males and females are involved in nest construction, and the process can take up to 5 weeks. Everything I’ve read say the hawks only have one clutch per year – and they usually have them in the spring at the preserve… That’s why I think it’s so odd to see them building their nests now, in October.

I was hoping to be able to see some of the Mule Deer bucks at the preserve. This time of year, they’re in rut and have their full racks of antlers.  Well I kind of hit the jackpot at one spot along the trail. I found one two-pointer buck standing in the tall grass and browsing, and as I watched him, I realized that there were two larger bucks sitting down in the grass near him.  I could see their antlers, but it was difficult to see their heads or any other part of their bodies; there was one two-pointer and one three-pointer.  As I was watching them, the guy who does the regular deer-count at the preserve came by.  I pointed out the bucks to him and he was very appreciative; he would’ve walked right past them if I hadn’t told him where they were.

Later on, I also came across a young doe and her new fawn. The little guy was still in his spots. He was pretty good at keeping himself at a distance from me and ducking for cover, but his mom didn’t seem very attentive. I worry that the little guy will get taken by coyotes because his mom isn’t keeping a good eye on him. There was an older fawn that was hanging around the mom and her baby, too, but I don’t know if he belonged to the same family or not. The mom wouldn’t let him get close enough to her to nurse, but otherwise didn’t seem interested in him…

Along with the regular contingency of Acorn Woodpeckers at the preserve, I also got to see Hairy Woodpeckers and a Nutthall’s Woodpecker today. The male Phainopepla was also hanging around, so I got to see him for a little bit, too. Oher birds seen today included Mourning Doves, European Starlings, California Scrub Jays, California Towhees, a Mockingbird, some American Robins, Northern Flickers, and a small contingency of Lesser Goldfinches drinking from a water fountain…

Here are some pix and videos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkhnaturalist/albums/72157689533852116

 I walked around for about 3 hours and then headed back home

Vacation Day #5: Smoky at the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve

DAY FIVE OF MY FALL VACATION…  I got up about 6:45 this morning and headed off to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve. I was surprised, when I got outside, by the heavy smell smoke in the air.  There are wildfires all around us (but none close to where we live), and the smoke is pervasive. There was so much smoke in the air it was actually a little hard for me to breathe, and by the time I’d finished with my walk I had a headache…

Here is a map of all of the fires burning around Sacramento

At one point along the trail, I came across a troupe of mule deer: mostly females, a couple of yearlings, and one male – a spike buck sporting his first one-pronged antlers. One of the matriarchs stepped up onto the trail directly in front of me, so I couldn’t get any closer to the fawns in the group.  She stared me down for quite a while, and I was impressed with her bravery and tenacity.  When she felt the others were safe enough, she backed off and went into the dry grass to graze.

I followed the troupe for a while, and watched as a doe and her fawn broke off from the herd and headed toward the river. I walked out that way after them and got some photos and video snippets of them. I was worried that the doe was going to try to take her fawn across the river; the current is really strong in that area.  But she just waded the baby out until the water was up to its knees and then brought it back to shore.

The smoke in the air clouded the sun, and the sunlight coming through it was bright orange… which made the water in the river look like it was on fire in places…

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos and videos.

There were quite a few specimens of Sulphur Shelf Fungus throughout the preserve – the most I’ve ever seen there…

When I had stopped on the path to take some photos of a Northern Flicker, a woman came up right behind me to look at the photo-screen on my camera to see what I looking at. I thought that was kind of rude and annoying, but I was nice and refrained from elbowing her in the face.

She asked me, “Where is that?” and I told her the bird was sitting on a hanging branch further up the path.

“Wow, how did you know it was there? I can’t see it from here.” 

“Once you do this for a while, you get a kind of ‘nature eye’ and can see all sorts of things most people miss.”

“Wow. Thank you for pointing that out.”

At another spot, I was taking photos of the Acorn Woodpeckers, and different woman came up. Just as I turned to look at her, a Hairy Woodpecker flew into a nearby tree and she got all excited. “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!” (We old women can get so excited about the smallest things.  Hah!) I did see the Hairy, and I started taking photos and video of it. We actually had a short discussion about whether it was a Hairy Woodpecker or a Downy Woodpecker. I get the two mixed up all the time because their markings are nearly identical. Based on the overall size of this guy, though, we decided it must be a Hairy…

The woman watched it for a while, and then took off back down the trail to tell her friends (who were lagging behind) about the bird.

While she was gone, a White-Breasted Nuthatch flew down onto the trail in front of me and started pecking at a dried piece of scat. I got photos of that, too, just before it grabbed the scat and flew off with it. Eew! Hah!

The oak trees are all covered in acorns right now – not as many as in a mast year, but still a good yield.  Most of the trees in the preserve, though, are hybrids, so the acorns aren’t necessarily good for harvesting (for the purpose of replanting).  The deer, squirrels, and birds really like them, though, so there’s a lot of action around them in the forest. I watched the Acorn Woodpeckers grab acorns from surrounding oak and fly them back to their granary trees and jam them into the holes for safekeeping over the winter.  Some of the birds are efficient at it and seem to know which acorns are ripe enough to pull easily away from their caps, and others… not so much.  They try to pull unripe acorns, and end up in a tug-of-war with the things.  So funny…

The weather was gorgeous – except for the smoke – while I was out there.  I was about 47º when I got there, and only around 68º when I left.  And it remained cool throughout the rest of the day, in the 70’s.

I walked for about 3½ hours, which is generally my limit, and I had a really bad headache by then which I attributed to the smoke… but I liked the exercise.

Before Work: Deer, a Young Coyote, Squirrels and a Female Quail

I headed over to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve for a walk. It was 59º when I headed out, and stayed nice all the while I was out there. When I first started out on the trail, I was kind of surprised to see a male Wild Turkey just standing in the middle of the trail looking at me. He actually let me walk up very near to him before he started walking up the trail ahead of me. I eventually passed him, and he didn’t run or fly away – just kept an eye on me. It was kind of cool and kind of creepy at the same time…

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

A few feet further up the trail, I suddenly saw a small head pop up from a small knoll covered with long dried grass and weeds. It was a young coyote! It didn’t see me right away, and I got to see it pounce through the grass after a mouse or vole or something. Then the coyote realized I was there and just stood there for a second trying to decide whether to run or keep hunting. It trotted off down the other side of the knoll, and I saw it circle back to see if I was still around where its would-be meal was. It saw me once more and decided to just split…

There’s one spot on the trail where there are signs warning about a nest of ground-dwelling Yellow Jackets. I always slow down around there to try to listen for the wasps. Today, when I paused there, a mother deer walked out of the woods with her two young fawns and started chewing on the leaves of a black walnut tree right on the trail in front of me. The babies moved in under the tree, in the shade, and tasted some of the leaves, too.

I was actually able to get pretty close to them before mom decided she’d had enough of me encroaching on her breakfast, and walked off quickly with her youngsters behind her. Later on, on a different part of the trail, I was taking some photos of a ground squirrel, and another fawn, out of its spots but still small, came stotting down a hill and toward me on the trail. It was all happy and goofy… and then it saw me, and skidded to a halt. It was only there for a second before it bounded off into the woods. Hah!

The black walnut trees in the woods are heavy with walnuts this time of year… and the Fox Squirrels love them. Everywhere you go in the preserve, you can hear the squirrels stripping the husk off and trying to crack open the nuts. Scritch-scritch-scritch. The noise makes it easy to spot the squirrels to get photos of them…

I also came across a covey of California Quails. I could hear the male, and got a glimpse of him and the other females in his harem, but only one female came out where I could actually get some photos of her. They’re such pretty, funny-looking little birds…

I walked for about 3 ½ hours and then headed back home. Time for work…

Looking for Grebes; Found Just About Anything But

I was out the door with Sergeant Margie by about 4:00 am, and drove out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge by way of the gas station and Jack’s.

I got to the refuge just as the sun was coming up, and as I got out of the car Great Blue Herons lurched out from the tops of the surrounding trees where they’d roosted for the night and flew off over my head… and one small bat came flitting around me to check me out. I didn’t get pictures of them, of course, because it was too dark and they moved too fast… As the sub came up, so did the temperatures and by 9:00 am it was already in the 80’. The car did NOT like the heat, and neither did I…

CLICK HERE to see the album of photos from today.

I was hoping the Clark’s and Western Grebes would be doing some courtship stuff, but they were uncooperative. I saw the Great Horned Owls, but they were sitting on top of a distant fence with their backs to me. (So rude! Hah!) And I came across a huge gathering of Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, but they were behind thick blinds of tules, and I couldn’t get the camera to see through and past the tules to the birds… So that was frustrating…

At one old scraggly tree I came across a bunch of young Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows jousting with each other. They were out catching the early morning bugs over the water and would go to the tree to rest… and argue with one another over who go what branch. This extended into a nearby willow tree where the scuffling continued… While I was watching them I caught sight of a young male Hairy Woodpecker who was testing out his navigation skills. He was pretty scruffy-looking, but seemed to be able to get around okay…

There were dragonflies, damselflies and big orb-weaver spiders everywhere, which is typical for this time of year, but among them I was surprised to get my very first photo of a Twelve Spotted Skimmer dragonfly. I’d seen Eight Spotted Skimmers before, but not a Twelve Spotted one… and I’d never seen any of the spotted skimmers at the refuge before. Usually, I only see them around Lake Solano. They usually seem to be in constant motion, which makes getting a photos of them hard for me. This Twelve Spotted one was parked on the top of a tule among a “flock” of Variegated Meadowhawks, so I quickly got as many picture of it as I could.

Among the birds out there today, I was also surprised to get my first still shot close-up of a Common Tern. (I think it was a Common one; I’m not very good at telling some of them apart.) I got a few good photos of a young Black-Crowned Night Heron who was fishing among the cattails and reeds, some late-in-the-season Snow Geese drifting on the water (juvenile and an adult), and a very cooperative juvenile Mourning Dove. She was sitting in the shade on a ranch near the viewing platform, and stayed right where she was while I got some close-ups of her. The doves have such lovely faces…

I also got some photos of a Great Egret sitting on top of a dead tree. It gaped while I was watching it so I got some photos of its tongue. Heron tongues are so weird-looking. Toward the back, where they attach in the throat, they’re flat, but near the front are arrowhead-like projections which help hold prey in the mouth and allow the birds to use the arrowhead like mini-trowels and shove the prey back from the front of the beak into the gullet…

I headed out of the preserve by about 10 o’clock and was back to the house by noon.